Desire and Desirelessness: A Case for Niskamakarma
by Christopher Framarin

This paper was written by a student at the University of Hawaii as part of an Infinity Foundation sponsored project.


The thought that desireless action, niskamakarma, might be a requirement of moral action or liberation in some Indian systems evokes a number of interpretations and responses. The least controversial interpretation of this doctrine is that niskamakarma is an exhortation to pursue the altruistic and noble while avoiding the selfish and base. In other words, it is a doctrine that is closely aligned with any moral intuition. A more radical interpretation is that to act without desire is to act without desire for the altruistic and the noble as well as the selfish and the base – to act in a state of utter desirelessness. With regard to the latter position, most students and some scholars aggressively object as follows: All intentional action has some goal. To have a goal is to desire its accomplishment. Hence all intentional action requires desire. So niskamakarma is a contradiction.

In the first part of this paper, I will consider the basis for the more radical interpretation of niskamakarma. I will, for the sake of simplicity, focus solely on this notion as it is formulated in the Bhagavatgita. I will argue that since the term 'kama' is ambiguous in the way just mentioned, niskamakarma is consequently obscure. I will argue that nonetheless, the evidence in favor of interpreting niskamakarma as a prescription to eliminate all desire is sufficient to justify a consideration of its implications.

In part II, I will outline the objection of the belief-desire theorist. In parts III through V, I will respond to the belief-desire objection and argue that the belief-desire theory is less plausible than a theory that allows for other means of motivation. I will argue that the word 'kama' is ambiguous in a second way, and that this ambiguity is useful in understanding the sometimes vague attempts to defend the radical interpretation of the niskamakarma theory.

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About the Author

Christopher Framarin completed his B.A. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in May of 1996. He majored in English and philosophy. He spent two years at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. During his second year he received the Infinity Foundation grant and was a research assistant under Professor Arindam Chakrabarti. He also spent the two years at Hawaii studying Sanskrit with Professors Walter Maurer and Ramanath Sharma. he completed his M.A. in May of 2002. His culminating exam paper was on the Bhagavad Gita. The submitted paper was developed from that paper.

That summer, he participated in the first summer Sanskrit program of the American Institute of Indian Studies. He spent ten weeks in Pune, India studying with Sanskrit scholars from the University of Pune.

The following fall, he began his Ph.D. work at the University of New Mexico under Professors John Taber and Richard Hayes. He expects to graduate in May of 2006. He has translated parts of the Yoga Sutras, the Vijnaptimatratasiddhi, the Bhagavad Gita, Bhartrhari's Vakyapadiya, the Mahabharata, and the Abhidharmakosa. He plans to write his dissertation on the theory of karma in the Abhidharmakosa. In the long run, he plans to work on ethics and moral psychology in Indian philosophy.